Thursday, November 12, 2009

Elmsford Cyclist Put to Rest Today: Merrill Cassell

Taught 10,000 children how to swim in Sri Lanka.

Accompanied by more than 20 cyclists and heartbroken relatives, slain cyclist Merrill Cassell, 66, was taken to his final resting place today.

Bikes lay on the ground at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale (Photo: Jen Benepe (C)).

It was cold and comfortless, raining and bitter, but Cassell's family came from around the country and across the world to say good bye.

Sobbing uncontrollably, Cassell's sister Erin who had traveled from Sri Lanka to bid good-bye appeared devastated and beyond words.

"I lost my brother," she choked between tears, outside Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church on Main Street as she left the 10:30 am services.

Erin, sister of Cassell flanked by another sister Winnie Rodriguez and a niece of the fallen cyclist, outside the Church of Our Lady of Carmel. (Jen Benepe)

She spoke long enough to murmur a few words about losing her own brother to his bicycle, and burst into tears again.

Behind her, Cassell's wife of more than 40 years, Maximilla Cassell, wailed with grief, and was supported by relatives as she walked to a car that would follow her husband for the first and last time to Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale.

It was the same wife that had greeted Cassell after his many triumphant finishes in Central Park of the New York City Marathon. And now she was bidding him farewell because of the sport he loved so much.

Cassell's funeral at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale.  His coffin flanked by close family. (Jen Benepe)

Cassell was struck and killed by a Westchester Bee-Line bus last Friday, October 6 on Route 119 in Greenburgh, NY during the late afternoon rush hour.

Greenburgh police Capt, Joseph DeCarlo said Cassell was riding alongside the bus, heading east when he was hit by the bus, and crushed by it.

Paul Feiner, Town of Greenburgh Supervisor knew Cassell and is organizing a Town Hall Meeting in December to discuss improving cycling safety. (Jen Benepe)

As is typical in many news reports, the Lower Hudson paper described Cassell's crash in words that could be described as blaming the victim, agreed some cyclists because it said "Cassell collided with the side of the bus and fell under it," and, "Police are still investigating what made him fall." It was not clear if these were the words of the reporter or the police, since no quotation was provided.

Why had the reporter not written "The bus collided with Cassell and caused him to fall," or, "The bus hit Cassell as it came around him. It is not clear if the driver swerved too quickly or didn't see the cyclist because he was in a hurry." This is the more likely scenario said several cyclists we interviewed today.

Reporters and police often blame cyclists because the rule of the road has long held that motorists--and the cars they drive--are king--and dead cyclists cannot speak for themselves. Often the only witness --as in this case--is the driver who killed them and has an incentive to doctor the truth.
Jen Laurita and Cyrus Afzali came to show their respect. (Jen Benepe)

And as with other accidents, like that of Jessica Purcell who was derided by bus travelers as she lay bleeding and unconscious on the ground this past summer, often non-riders denigrate cyclists for their sport, possibly because the two-wheelers are in the habit of constantly reminding drivers that the roads are not made exclusively for cars.

And so without the ability to tell his own story, it appears another fallen cyclist has been blamed for his own death.

Incomprehensibly so, because Cassell owned six or seven bikes and was a very experienced rider, said fellow cyclists who attended the funeral and rode the bitter and cold five miles in front of the hearse holding Cassell's body to the cemetery.

Pic: David Wilson talks to cyclists before they ride to the cemetery behind Cassell's hearse. (Jen Benepe)

When news of Cassell's death hit the newspapers, some people who wrote into the paper by email made comments that would curl any reasonable person's nails, much less inspire others to hatred and violence.

Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner who called Cassell's death "tragic and horrible," also described the comments of some readers as "despicable, terrible and disgusting."

Feiner attended the funeral and rode in the bike procession today, and plans a town hall meeting on December 9 at 7:30 p.m. to discuss how the town can improve cycling safety.

Some of the comments to the LoHud article (you need to be registered to read them,) ranged from the truly ignorant to the grossly insane. Take for example this man who wrote:  "66 YEARS OLD AND STILL FOOLING AROUND WITH A BICYCLE!!!??? THIS JERK NEVER GREW UP, AND NOW HE NEVER WILL!!! GOOD RIDDANCE!!! ONE LESS PEST ON THE ROAD!!! AND 2 THINGS: I HOPE THAT THE BUS IS OK, AND BAN BICYCLES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Still, two cyclists who attended the funeral said they thought reporting of Cassell's incident (not some comments by readers) had been fair. Liam Allen, 27 of Yorktown who began cycling about a year ago said he had read many of the news reports and found them balanced.
His friend Rory Salsh, also 27 said some of the riding in the area was dangerous, and that some roads posed more dangers than others such as the presence of pot holes.  But both riders said they thought drivers often rush home from work, use their cellphones while driving, and often don't pay attention. "Truthfully it is not a shocker because the roads are dangerous," said Allen.

Loading Cassell into the hearse. His last ride. (Jen Benepe)

Feiner praised Cassell for his involvement in cycling issues in the area: "Merrill was not careless, he was very methodical," he noted.

Feiner also said Cassell was a "very decent person, and very unassuming," even as he helped raised awareness and work on cycling advocacy issues.

David Wilson, president of the Westchester Cycling Club who organized the ride described Cassell as a wonderful person, an environmentalist, and "a very, very good rider."

A friend of Cassell's quietly stood at the edge of the funeral proceedings holding a red rose. (Jen Benepe)

The driver of the bus was not arrested and was allowed to go home after the crash. Reports say he was not using the telephone or drunk. But it is not clear if passengers in the bus saw Cassell or the accident and might have a different story to tell.

The accident is still under investigation by the Greenburgh Police Department.

Bicycle accidents are not unusual in this area. In 2003, while working with the New York Bicycling Coalition, a statewide cycling advocacy group, BBB attended several meetings to help make cycling safer in Greenburgh and Elmsford. Several roads were targeted for improvement including Routes 100 and 119 where Cassell was killed. BBB even made presentations in two of the local schools for safer cycling.

It is not clear is any of the recommendations made by NYBC were implemented by the New York State Department of Transportation. At the time of publication, emails to then NYBC's director Jesse Day for clarification have not been returned.

Melanie, granddaughter of Cassell playing with a dog at the funeral. (Jen Benepe)

Another cyclist from the area, Lorraine Valentini of Hartsdale and a member of the Westchester Bicycle Club suffered a terrible accident on Route 22 in June 2005. She broke her neck and became a paraplegic from her injuries: she died this July.

Route 22 was another road that was identified by cyclists as being a problematic road, and those comments and suggestions for improvements were also made to the state DOT. It is not clear if the cause of Valentini's accident and the road issues were consistent.

Cassell was originally from Sri Lanka and was a retired budget director for UNICEF. But he also spent a lot of time working on helping make roads safer for cyclists in the area, said Wilson.

Back in his country he was well known for having trained more than 10,000 children to swim, said his niece Delano Cassell as she stood with her brother Frank nearby the gravesite, her eyes red from crying.

Cassell pictured right in an undated photo was an avid cyclist. Source: Cassell's blog.

Many people from his work at the United Nations came to pay their respects, and family members were numerous. Cassell's daughter, Tania, put the last rose on his casket before it was lowered into the ground.

The grandfather and cyclist was also a marathon runner, and his blog shows many happy photos of him coming in at the finish line with his wife Maximilia greeting him.

In 2008, Cassell won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Sri Lanka Consulate in the US for his role in teaching poor Sri Lankan children to swim in the 1960's. His photos show a youthful, robust man in his prime.  The excerpt below is from his blog.

Cassell after an undated finish of the NYC Marathon, with his wife, Maximilla.  Source: Cassell's blog.

On Saturday August 8, 2008, the same day the Olympics started in Beijing, the Sri Lanka Consulate in the USA in conjunction with the Sri Lanka Association of New York, awarded me a life-time achievement award (please see picture below).  A good citizen by the name of Jay Liyanage, a sportsman himself in his youth, took the initiative to recognize my achievements in swimming in the early to mid 1960s, where I organized Learn-to-Swim campaigns in Sri Lanka teaching more than 10,000 poor village children in the finer art of swimming.  If I changed the bias that poor village children cannot swim, I am sure Cullen Jones will succeed in changing the bias in the USA that blacks can't swim......
The award was presented in Denville, New Jersey, USA by Congressman Rodney Frelingheusen . The mayor of Denville has declared one day in August as the Sri Lanka Sports Day.  

Below, Cassell this past winter riding in the snow. He frequently rode in the snow according to his blog. The entry below is what he wrote in his blog to accompany this photo:

"Bicycling in the snow, winter 2009"
"In 1997 I traded the second car we owned for a bicycle and never felt the need to get another car. I have spent the past decade transforming other people to get fit by bicycling, swimming or walking/running.  I have been a long distance swimmer, long distance runner and lately a long-distance bicyclist.  However, my long distance bicycling is long for my age and environment and is no comparison to the extraordinary long distance riders.  If a 70-100 mile bicycle ride is not long for a 66-year old, then what is long?  I cycle in all seasons of the year and hope to try out snow bicycling with snow-studded tires soon and some adventure rides (basically not knowing what is on the other side)."

Pic: Cassell after a long ride in Westchester in April 2007. This is what he said about the ride on his blog:

Westchester, New York
After personal best on the North County Bicycle trail - 33 miles in 2 hours 22 minutes riding as recent as April 28, 2007. Previous times ranged from 2 hours 40 minutes to 3 hours some times. This was an unusual day. On July 11, 2009, I rode the same 33 miles in 2 hours 19 minutes on my new Trek Madone 5.2.

Cassell leaves his wife, Maximilla, a daughter, Tania, and two grandchildren.


Anonymous said...

Very sad. Thank you for continuing to document the slaughter of innocent cyclists by self-absorbed, ignorant drivers.

Gerry said...

MC was a true humanitarian, his loss has greatly sadden his relatives in Australia, RIP hero you r the wind beneath his wings in christ there is no death as christ is the reserection and he who belives an call upon him will never die when we call yr name we will see u in haven.

david mckay wilson said...

thanks for the story on Merrill. I'm going to the UN service on Friday...